Later On

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Archive for the ‘Terrorism’ Category

Almost all news coverage of the Barcelona attack mentioned terrorism. Very little coverage of Charlottesville did.

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Bryan Arva, Muhammed Idris, and Fouad Pervez report in the Washington Post:

The recent attacks in Charlottesville and Barcelona both involved perpetrators with ties to extremist ideologies using vehicles to kill and injure civilians. Because of these similarities, a debate quickly began about how politicians and news outlets discussed these two events — including whether it was appropriate to call both acts of terrorism.

Our research on these attacks — as well as the Orlando shootings by Omar Mateen and the Charleston church shootings by Dylan Roof — shows that news coverage framed these shootings very differently. Only the attacks perpetrated by Muslims were routinely called terrorism.

Even before we did our study, research showed disproportionately high media coverage of terrorism committed by Muslims — even though right-wing extremist groups have committed more attacks than Muslim in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001. Indeed, on the same weekend as the Charlottesville attack, the white nationalist Jerry Varnell was arrested for attempting a Timothy McVeigh-style bombing, but with little media attention.

Our research on the Orlando and Charleston shootings focused not on how much these attacks were covered, but on how they were covered. Our statistical analysis used a tool called topic modeling, which identifies common themes in a collection of articles and clusters them together using an algorithm. Essentially, we identified the relevant frames in thousands of articles from major national and regional U.S. newspapers.

Although the Orlando and Charleston shootings had key similarities — both were committed by individuals, involved firearms  and were plausibly hate crimes — they were not covered similarly.

First, the graph below shows that coverage of Mateen used “terrorism,”  “terrorist,”  and “radical” three to four times as frequently, while Roof’s coverage used “mental health” 3.5 times as frequently.

Even within the coverage that focused on terrorism, there were differences. Articles that discussed Mateen and terrorism focused on Islam and violence. But articles that discussed Roof and terrorism tended to focus on the question of whether his attack constituted terrorism. The coverage of Mateen didn’t really ever ask that question. This was despite weak evidence tying Mateen to the Islamic State, compared to stronger evidence tying Roof to right-wing extremist groups.

The same pattern emerged in coverage of the Charlottesville and Barcelona attacks. We gathered stories published within five days of each attack that included the names of the drivers of the vehicles. The same statistical models showed stark differences in how the coverage was framed:

Once again, coverage of Barcelona referred to terrorism and religion substantially more than did coverage of Charlottesville. Even the Charlottesville coverage that mentioned terrorism did so within the context of debating whether Fields’s attack was terrorism. The same does not appear true for coverage of Younes Abouyaaquob.

We do not believe that these differences in coverage are intentional or nefarious. . .

Continue reading.

More at the link, including charts.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 August 2017 at 12:30 pm

Posted in Media, Terrorism

A Physicist Who Models ISIS and the Alt-Right

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In Quanta Natalie Wolchover interviews the physicist Neil Johnson:

Neil Johnson used to study electrons as a buttoned-up professor of physics at the University of Oxford. Then, a decade ago, he decamped to the University of Miami — a young institution that he sees as unconstrained by rigid traditions or barriers between disciplines — and branched out. In recent years, the 55-year-old physicist has published research on financial markets, crowds, superconductivity, earthquake forecasting, light-matter interactions, bacterial photosynthesis, quantum information and computation, neuron firing patterns, heart attacks, tumor growth, contagion and urban disasters, not to mention his extensive body of work on terrorism and other forms of insurgent conflict.

Johnson models the extreme events and behaviors that can arise in complex systems. The author of two books on complexity, he has found that the same principles often apply, regardless of whether a system consists of interacting electrons, humans or anything else. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he began modeling extremism in human society. He had also spent time in Colombia during the war against the FARC guerrilla army, and grew up near London during the era of IRA bombings. “I started wondering what the patterns of attacks in the respective places might be telling us about how humans do terrorism,” he said. “Terrorism suddenly became, for me, an urgent problem that I might be able to help society understand, and perhaps even one day predict.”

The rise of ISIS has served as both an impetus and test case for Johnson’s models. Even more recently, he has begun using his models to study the growth of white nationalist groups in the United States.

Quanta Magazine caught up with Johnson to discuss his findings by phone in June, before he left to spend the summer working with collaborators in Bogota, Colombia. A condensed and edited version of that conversation, and a subsequent email exchange after the events in Charlottesville, follows.

What’s a physicist doing studying terrorist networks, financial markets and all these other systems?

In all these complex systems, the pieces of the system interact with each other and they evolve over time. And there’s something that a collection of objects like that can do which a handful of coins cannot do. I can throw up a set of coins and it would always come down pretty much 50-50 heads and tails, and there will be a little bit of variance around that — it obeys something called a bell curve. We base so much science on the bell curve. Bell-curve distributions arise when you deal with coins, or any collection where the pieces aren’t connected, like heights of people in a room. However, in most of the systems we’re interested in — the hard problems, be they of science or society — those distributions look very different than bell curves; they’re so-called fat-tail distributions.

Thinking about heights, instead of everybody being 5 feet 10 inches, on average, and maybe down to 4 feet and up to 7 feet, but certainly not 70 feet, with the distributions you get in these complex systems, you can get the 70-foot person. In fact, you can get the 700-foot person. There’s something about the way the pieces interact with each other that makes these extreme events happen: the 700-foot person, the stock market crash, the 9/11. So the interesting question is, is there a general science that can govern and tell us about these extreme behaviors? And if we can understand that for one system, can we transfer that understanding over to another one and therefore do something about it?

When you began working on terrorism in the early 2000s, where did you start?

We looked at the shapes of the distributions of terrorist attacks. Given 9/11 and an attack half that size — how frequent are the two relative to each other? That gives you the statistical distribution, like a distribution of heights. In doing that, you find common features across all these different conflicts and across terrorist events, regardless of their specific details. Now, you talk to a social scientist and they think that’s absolutely awful to hear that. Because they’re focused on those details. You can have someone who’s an expert on the Second World War, or the Vietnam War or Iraq, and it’s kind of strange for them to get a message from another discipline that somehow those details don’t matter.

What unites the different conflicts?

When you plot the frequency of events versus the size of events, you get this straight line and it has a slope of 2.5 for conflicts and terrorism. And that was a surprise to us. So here starts the physics. We started to build mathematical models of what might be going on in a system of insurgents or terrorist groups; what would create a 2.5 power law?

Were you able to figure out where the 2.5 comes from?

We were looking at Iraq and Colombia at the time — 2003. And we said, OK, one’s in the desert, one is in the jungle; let’s think about what people do. And we thought, well, the only thing we can really say is both of those conflicts are sort of irregular. There might be a state army, but they’re fighting against an insurgency — terrorists or guerrillas, where you’ve got loose groups that come together and then if they sense danger from the opposing military unit, they might fight and then break up and scatter in all directions. Almost like fish under the sea. They build into schools of fish, and when a predator comes along they scatter; and then they kind of re-form again because there’s an advantage to re-forming. In guerrilla warfare there’s an advantage because you get to attack in a group. And then they scatter.

We took those two features and we built a  . . .

Continue reading.

And do watch that video. It’s less than three minutes. In his description people forming groups online struck me as a frictionless and fluid way of creating groups (as compared to the physical world): escaping the turgidity of real-world experiences.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 August 2017 at 12:35 pm

Posted in Math, Science, Terrorism

Extremely ominous: Months before Charlottesville violence, minorities were already feeling alienated and excluded

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Jonathan Collins reports in the Washington Post:

The violence in Charlottesville this past weekend — and President Trump’s unwillingness to unequivocally condemn the white nationalist groups behind it — has produced widespread condemnation of these groups and Trump himself.

Although the “alt-right” expresses its views in the guise of “equality” for whites, its prejudice toward minority groups is clear. Thus, the events in Charlottesville represent a clear threat to a variety of racial, ethnic and religious minorities.

But we should not let that threat obscure a more basic reality: Well before the violence in Charlottesville, minority groups were already feeling threatened, alienated and excluded. A newly empowered white nationalist movement may heighten those feelings, but they are hardly new. The implication is that addressing those feelings will require much more than the marginalization of white supremacy.

A unique survey sheds important light on the views of minorities. From Dec. 3, 2016, to Feb. 15, 2017, the Collaborative Multiracial Post-Election Survey (CMPS) conducted 10,145 online interviews in five languages (English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese). The sample included larger samples of ethnic minority groups than in traditional surveys: 3,102 African Americans, 3,003 Latinos and 3,006 Asian Americans, as well as 1,034 whites. The sample included registered and unregistered voters in addition to non-citizens, all of whom were recruited through a mix of registered voter listings that could be matched to email addresses as well as opt-in online panels. The data for each racial group are weighted to match 2015 Census data in terms of age, gender, education, nativity, ancestry and voter registration. More detail about the study’s methodology can be found here, and the full questionnaire can be accessed here.

One important question in the survey asked only to African Americans sought to measure whether they perceived an increasing sense of threat from whites: “Since President Obama’s election, do you feel that whites have become more racially discriminatory and angry towards blacks?” The majority of African Americans (57 percent) said yes. Of that majority, almost 60 percent believed that the increase in discrimination and hatred was due to the growing “belief that blacks are advancing more than whites.” Similarly, 71 percent of African Americans believed that discrimination against them as a group was a “very important” factor in explaining disparities in education, income and homeownership between whites and African Americans. The survey did pose these questions immediately following questions about racialized police violence, which could have heightened African Americans’ sense of threat, but a Pew Research Center survey conducted before the election found similar results.

Racial and ethnic minorities were also more likely to  . . .

Continue reading.

I would say this is quite ominous, as is the geographic distribution of hate groups. We are coming to a crossroads.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 August 2017 at 12:54 pm

Not only did Trump show great reluctance to condemn neo-Nazis and white supremacists, he has now cut funding to groups fighting right-wing violence

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And, of course, he has sent a clear message to his racist, neo-Nazi, white supremacist supporters by saying he’s considering a pardon for Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Melanie Zazona reports in The Hill:

The Trump administration’s decision to cut federal funding for groups fighting right-wing violence has come under new scrutiny following the president’s controversial response to violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend.

Trump, who faced a firestorm of criticism for not initially calling out white supremacists, the KKK and neo-Nazis on Saturday, explicitly denounced the hate groups by name on Monday and vowed to fight against violent extremism.

But the botched immediate response has some critics questioning the White House’s commitment to the issue, and they point to the funding cuts as evidence.

“It’s a disgrace that Trump is cutting out Countering Violent Extremism funds for white supremacists and neo-Nazis. We know that the domestic terror threat from them is as great as it from Islamic radicals. It’s a very serious situation,” said Heidi Beirich, director of the intelligence project for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“I find the pattern of cutting this money to be typical for the Trump administration’s unwillingness to take seriously the threat posed by these people, whether they’re doing it intentionally or not.”

Even before Charlottesville, critics were slamming the administration for making changes to a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) grant program that is aimed at supporting community efforts to stop violent extremism and recruitment efforts.

In the final days of the Obama administration, $10 million in Countering Violent Extremism funding was awarded to 31 different applicants, including several groups dedicated to combating white supremacy and de-radicalizing neo-Nazis.

But the Trump administration froze funding for the grants while it reconsidered the applications, re-examined the goals of the program and altered how the grant program would measure efficacy.

Reuters reported at the time that the White House was considering retooling the program to focus more on radical Islamic extremism than on white supremacist groupsTrump also proposed entirely eliminating the program in his 2018 budget request.

When the administration finally released its revised list of grant recipients this summer, funding was pulled for a total of 12 grant recipients — including $400,000 for a group called Life After Hate, which was one of the only original grant recipients focused on fighting far-right extremism.

The nonprofit organization, which was touted by then-DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson in a press release, is one of the only programs in the U.S. devoted to helping people leave neo-Nazi and other white supremacy groups.

The Trump administration also cancelled a $900,000 grant that would have gone toward the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to counter jihadist and white supremacist recruiting.

Tony McAleer, one of the co-founders of Life After Hate, said they were counting on the federal dollars to implement a strategic initiative to proactively identify white supremacists online who want to leave the movement.

The organization, which relies on donations and volunteer work to help provide resources and support, can’t afford to proceed with the effort on its own.

“They threw the baby out with bathwater. What happens now is that we have to passively wait for people to reach out to us,” McAleer said.

“If they had given us the funding right away within a month or two of being awarded, we would have been up and running before Charlottesville. Whether or not we would have made a difference, it’s impossible to know.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 August 2017 at 9:29 am

Spyware Sold to Mexican Government Targeted International Officials

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The Mexican government seems actively hostile to its citizens and actively supportive of drug cartels and their murders. Indeed, the Mexican government seems to have become a criminal gang itself. Azam Ahmed reports in the NY Times:

A team of international investigators brought to Mexico to unravel one of the nation’s gravest human rights atrocities was targeted with sophisticated surveillance technology sold to the Mexican government to spy on criminals and terrorists.

The spying took place during what the investigators call a broad campaign of harassment and interference that prevented them from solving the haunting case of 43 students who disappeared after clashing with the police nearly three years ago.

Appointed by an international commission that polices human rights in the Americas, the investigators say they were quickly met with stonewalling by the Mexican government, a refusal to turn over documents or grant vital interviews, and even a retaliatory criminal investigation.

Now, forensic evidence shows that the international investigators were being targeted by advanced surveillance technology as well.

The main contact person for the group of investigators received text messages laced with spyware known as Pegasus, a cyberweapon that the government of Mexico spent tens of millions of dollars to acquire, according to an independent analysis. The coordinator’s phone was used by nearly all members of the group, often serving as a nexus of communication among the investigators, their sources, the international commission that appointed them and the Mexican government.

Beyond that, the investigators say they received identical text messages on their own phones, too, luring them to click on links that secretly unlock a target’s smartphone and turn it into a powerful surveillance device. Calls, emails, text messages, calendars and contacts can all be monitored that way. Encrypted messages become worthless. Even the microphone and camera on a smartphone can be used against its owner.

The effort to spy on international officials adds to a sweeping espionage offensive in Mexico, where some of the country’s most prominent journalists, human rights lawyers and anticorruption activists have been the targets of the same surveillance technology. But the new evidence shows that the spying campaign went beyond the nation’s domestic critics.

It also swept up international officials who had been granted a status akin to diplomatic immunity as well as unprecedented access to investigate a case that has come to define the nation’s broken rule of law — and the legacy of its president, Enrique Peña Nieto.

Surveillance under Mexican law can be conducted only with the authorization of a federal judge, and only if the government can show cause to do so. But the kind of diplomatic immunity the investigators received meant that it was extremely unlikely that a federal judge would have been allowed to sign off on such a warrant, the investigators said.

“You are not just hacking anyone’s phone, you are hacking the phone of someone who has been granted immunity,” said Francisco Cox, one of the investigators and a prominent Chilean lawyer. “They couldn’t even search my bags in the airport.”

“If this can happen to an independent body that has immunity and that is invited by the government, it is a bit scary to think of what could happen to a common citizen in Mexico,” he said.

Since 2011, Mexico has purchased at least $80 million worth of the spyware, which is sold exclusively to governments, and only on the condition that it be used against terrorists and criminals. But an investigation by The New York Times and forensic cyberanalysts in recent weeks determined that the software had been used against some of the country’s most influential academics, lawyers, journalists and their family members, including a teenage boy.

The government has denied responsibility for the espionage, adding that there is no ironclad proof because the spyware does not leave behind the hacker’s individual fingerprints. It has promised a thorough investigation, vowing to call on specialists from the United Nations and the F.B.I. for help. One of the surveillance targets, the forensic analysis showed, was a United States lawyer representing victims of sexual assault by the Mexican police.

But the United States ambassador to Mexico, Roberta S. Jacobson, said the United States was not involved in the investigation. Opposition lawmakers and international officials are now calling for an independent inquiry into the spying scandal, declaring Mexico unfit to investigate itself.

“This case just on its face — and presuming the veracity of the allegations — is serious enough to warrant the creation of an international commission,” said James L. Cavallaro, a commissioner on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which appointed the group of experts. “The commission shares the concerns of others: How can the government be trusted to investigate its own alleged violation of citizen rights given its track record in this matter?”

Another commissioner, Esmeralda Arosemena de Troitiño, backed the idea of an independent inquiry. “This investigation should find both the material and intellectual authors of the alleged spying,” she said.

Top officials from the nation’s main opposition party have come forward to say that they, too, have been targeted, raising the pressure on the government. The head of the National Action Party, Ricardo Anaya, says his party is pushing for a congressional committee to conduct its own inquiry and will also formally demand an international investigation into the spying.

“The grand tragedy of Mexico is impunity. Horrible things occur, and nothing happens,” he said. “This time, we will not let that happen.”. . .

Continue reading.

I have to admit that I am not optimistic. The rot seems too deep, too entrenched, and backed by forces that have too much power.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 July 2017 at 10:39 am

SCOTUS allows some limits on travel from some Muslim countries (those which no terrorist has ever attacked the US)

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In the meantime, travel from Saudi Arabia (home to 15 of 19 9/11 terrorists) is not restricted at all.

What’s weird is that the decision is now beside the point, or should be. The idea of the restriction was to allow the Trump Administration to define extreme vetting procedures, which they said would take at the most 120 days. That time has long since expired, so no travel ban is needed since presumably the new vetting procedures are in place—except, of course, they’re not: the Trump Administration can’t get anything done due to a bad combination of infighting and incompetence.

NY Times report here.

Written by LeisureGuy

26 June 2017 at 9:12 am

It’s worse than we thought: A Cyberattack ‘the World Isn’t Ready For’

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Nicole Perlroth has a frightening report in the NY Times:

There have been times over the last two months when Golan Ben-Oni has felt like a voice in the wilderness.

On April 29, someone hit his employer, IDT Corporation, with two cyberweapons that had been stolen from the National Security Agency. Mr. Ben-Oni, the global chief information officer at IDT, was able to fend them off, but the attack left him distraught.

In 22 years of dealing with hackers of every sort, he had never seen anything like it. Who was behind it? How did they evade all of his defenses? How many others had been attacked but did not know it?

Since then, Mr. Ben-Oni has been sounding alarm bells, calling anyone who will listen at the White House, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the New Jersey attorney general’s office and the top cybersecurity companies in the country to warn them about an attack that may still be invisibly striking victims undetected around the world.

(p>And he is determined to track down whoever did it.

“I don’t pursue every attacker, just the ones that piss me off,” Mr. Ben-Oni told me recently over lentils in his office, which was strewn with empty Red Bull cans. “This pissed me off and, more importantly, it pissed my wife off, which is the real litmus test.”

Two weeks after IDT was hit, the cyberattack known as WannaCry ravaged computers at hospitals in England, universities in China, rail systems in Germany, even auto plants in Japan. No doubt it was destructive. But what Mr. Ben-Oni had witnessed was much worse, and with all eyes on the WannaCry destruction, few seemed to be paying attention to the attack on IDT’s systems — and most likely others around the world.

The strike on IDT, a conglomerate with headquarters in a nondescript gray building here with views of the Manhattan skyline 15 miles away, was similar to WannaCry in one way: Hackers locked up IDT data and demanded a ransom to unlock it.

But the ransom demand was just a smoke screen for a far more invasive attack that stole employee credentials. With those credentials in hand, hackers could have run free through the company’s computer network, taking confidential information or destroying machines.

Worse, the assault, which has never been reported before, was not spotted by some of the nation’s leading cybersecurity products, the top security engineers at its biggest tech companies, government intelligence analysts or the F.B.I., which remains consumed with the WannaCry attack.

Were it not for a digital black box that recorded everything on IDT’s network, along with Mr. Ben-Oni’s tenacity, the attack might have gone unnoticed.

Scans for the two hacking tools used against IDT indicate that the company is not alone. In fact, tens of thousands of computer systems all over the world have been “backdoored” by the same N.S.A. weapons. Mr. Ben-Oni and other security researchers worry that many of those other infected computers are connected to transportation networks, hospitals, water treatment plants and other utilities.

An attack on those systems, they warn, could put lives at risk. And Mr. Ben-Oni, fortified with adrenaline, Red Bull and the house beats of Deadmau5, the Canadian record producer, said he would not stop until the attacks had been shut down and those responsible were behind bars.

“The world is burning about WannaCry, but this is a nuclear bomb compared to WannaCry,” Mr. Ben-Oni said. “This is different. It’s a lot worse. It steals credentials. You can’t catch it, and it’s happening right under our noses.”

And, he added, “The world isn’t ready for this.”

Targeting the Nerve Center . . .

Continue reading.

It gets worse. Later:

. . , No one he has spoken to knows whether they have been hit, but just this month, restaurants across the United States reported being hit with similar attacks that were undetected by antivirus systems. There are now YouTube videos showing criminals how to attack systems using the very same N.S.A. tools used against IDT, and Metasploit, an automated hacking tool, now allows anyone to carry out these attacks with the click of a button.

Worse still, Mr. Ben-Oni said, “No one is running point on this.” . . .


. . . Last month, he personally briefed the F.B.I. analyst in charge of investigating the WannaCry attack. He was told that the agency had been specifically tasked with WannaCry, and that even though the attack on his company was more invasive and sophisticated, it was still technically something else, and therefore the F.B.I. could not take on his case.

The F.B.I. did not respond to requests for comment. . .

The US will be destroyed because of bureaucratic turf issues.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 June 2017 at 8:37 pm

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